Best options for an out-of-country Cal Bar Exam taker?
April 8, 2006 8:04 PM   Subscribe

California Bar Exam: not only out-of-state, but out-of-country. Should I pony up for the Bar/Bri?

I have an LL.B. and an LL.M. from good Canadian law schools. I'm planning to take the Cal Bar in July and am just going to make it to the U.S. in time for the start of the Bar/Bri courses. I have no job lined up so will have to pay for it myself, and it currently costs just over 3K. What other options do I have? I can afford to pay for the course if it's necessary, but since I know so little about Bar prep in this jurisdiction I'm hesistant to sign up just because it's the only name I know. If it's the best way, I'm willing, but I'd love a little info on other options as well.

I feel quite flustered by the amount of work ahead of me (I know almost zero American constitutional law, for example) so I want something that will show me exactly what's on the test and where I can learn the law I need for the test. Essay writing and test-taking skills aren't as important to me as the actual law that I'll need to learn; I already know how to do standardized tests and would only want a small portion of the time spent on "tricks", etc.

As a bonus, if you want to recommend books that I should start reading/studying now, I'd be very grateful.
posted by livii to Education (14 answers total)
We're going through this set of choices right now (VT bar, graduating boyfriend). I have only anecdotes. CA has a low pass rate, on average, so prepping is not a bad idea generally. You can, as you probably know, buy Barbri books on Ebay or check craigslist for them. Depending on how you learn, the savings might be useful enough to make this a worthwhile alternative. I saw one or two Barbri gift certificates up on Ebay as well. Nothing much but maybe a little cost offset. Other than that, I am also interested in answers to this question.
posted by jessamyn at 8:32 PM on April 8, 2006

The California Bar exam is widely regarded as the hardest in the country. Certainly the passage rate bears that out. It's something like 50%.

It's worth noting that the rate is something like 69% for graduates of American Bar Association-approved schools.

So far as BarBri being the best pretty much is. In fact, it's pretty much the only way. At least, it's got an enormous market share.

My guess is that getting it right the first time is more than worth the cost of preparation, certainly when compared to the cost of taking the test over again (and preparing that time).
posted by jedicus at 8:36 PM on April 8, 2006

California is a rough one - from this past May's exam, about 60% of the recent graduates from my law school passed (non-california school, generally regarded as a top twenty U.S. school). I cannot really speak about California in specific, but I will tell you that I just recently took and passed the NY Bar Exam - I think generally considered the second hardest U.S. jurisdiction - while studying by myself.

I think the choice about the prep work has a lot to do with how you learn. Do you get a lot from classroom work? Do you require the external discipline of a class schedule in order to stay on task? Does the stress of other people transfer to you easily? Motivate you?

I work well on my own and am fairly disciplined about sticking to my own schedule. I dislike dealing with people who are really stressed out, and prefer to have my own interaction with the materials and the exam. Self study ended up being perfect for me. I bought materials of craigslist and ebay - the Barbri NY books and the PMBR Multistate Materials. I followed along with BarBri's schedule that's posted on their website, so I knew that I would be on schedule in regards to covering all the topics in time for review for the exam. It ended up costing me about $350 in books, which is a good bit cheaper than the actual BarBri option.

For the Multistate exam, I highly recommend the PMBR Books. I took some BarBri Multistate practice questions and I felt like the PMBR sample questions were much more in line with the actual exam. A good website to discuss bar related study is: JD Jive. It has the regular amount of noise that is endemic to law school related message boards, but there are people that are pretty helpful there.

In regards to you not having a background in U.S. ConLaw, that's going to come up on the Multistate Exam, and likely somewhat on the California essays. For the multistate, I think you should go through the materials and answer as many questions as you can to get a sense of what the exam will be looking for. I made flash cards, which while annoying, helped me remember the materials. I would make flash cards even for questions that I answered correctly, because the key really isn't whether you are getting things right or wrong during practice, but whether you know what the right answers are by the time the exam rolls around.

I learned a number of subjects for the very first time during my bar study (wills & trusts, secured transactions, etc.) and found that a few days on each subject was all that was really required to get my level of knowledge ready for what the exam was asking. Remember though: its just an exam, and like all exams, can be beaten. Good luck!
posted by buddha9090 at 9:26 PM on April 8, 2006

buddha9090's post is excellent advice, but I personally would strongly recommend taking a course. Whatever you do, don't take Kaplan. Kaplan is complete ass.

The difficult thing about passing the CA bar exam is that they have this really weird scoring system. It's a sliding scale that balances your essay and practical test scores against your multistate score. Below a certain multistate core, it becomes mathematically impossible to pass the exam. I think that number hovers around 135 raw. So I strongly advise that you focus on the multistate and make sure you can nail that. Another benefit of strong multistate study focus is that the multistate subjects constitute six of the 13 testable essay subjects.

Also, don't be freaked out by the low pass rate. The pass rate for the exam I took was 28%, which is insanely low. But the numbers are skewed by the fact that California does its own law school accreditation, and accredits schools that could never gain ABA accreditation. Unlike most other states where one must attend an ABA accredited school to sit for the bar, California has no such requirement. There are tons of crappy, second-rate non-ABA accredited schools in Cali as a result. Also, passage rates are, as a rule, higher for people who haven't attended California law schools (ABA accredited or not). I think this is because people from out of state haven't spent three years being terrorized by the thought of the California exam.

*Disclaimer: I took the bar 16 years ago.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 10:37 PM on April 8, 2006

I passed the CA bar after spending a few weeks with a set of hand-me-down BarBri books from another attorney at the office where I worked. AFAIK, things change infrequently enough that you can get by with books from a year or two ago, at least if you have a reasonable foundation for framing the differences.
The books are good because they provide a listing of the subset of law you need to pass the test. I don't know how the classes measure up; if you're disciplined enough to study on your own, I'd expect that the books alone would do the trick.
Check eBay for used copies...I sold the ones that were given to me for $50 or so (plus shipping). (I tried to give them back, but my donor didn't want them, and I didn't need them any more...)
posted by spacewrench at 10:49 PM on April 8, 2006

I sat for, and passed, the California bar exam, followed immediately by sitting for, and passing, the New York bar exam. As ereshkigal45 mentions, California has a lower pass rate because it has a lot of non-ABA accredited law schools, so don't freak out over it. You're not the type of law school grad the bar examiners are seeking to weed out. California's test is three days, so there is an endurance factor to it, but on the substantive questions, I'd say New York's test was actually harder, in that the questions focus more on New York law (as opposed to California, which focused more on Federal common law.) I took BarBri to prep for the California bar, I took Pieper to prep for New York. (AFAIK, Pieper is New York-only; I highly recommend it for the New York bar.) I'd say BarBri did an perfectly adequate job prepping me for the CA bar. (This was now nine years ago, so take YMMV.)

I would not recommend coming in from outside the US to sit for the California bar without taking a formal prep course, and BarBri is the 800 pound gorilla in this market. BarBri will spoon-feed you what you need to know for the bar, and you may find that the books alone will be enough. I found the classes provided a structure to build a study schedule around, and would probably have felt much more anxious without them. I highly, highly recommend taking the PMBR course as well- nailing the multistate really improves your odds of passing the first time around. Anecdotally, the people I know who have failed repeatedly have had problems with the multi-state portion of the exam.

The California bar exam is certainly something that you can beat. Don't stress out about it, get enough sleep and exercise, and do the practice tests, and you'll be fine. Good luck!
posted by ambrosia at 11:29 PM on April 8, 2006

Yeah, it sucks that BAR/BRI has a quasi-monopoly, but get admitted, and then sue them with a class action thing. Odds are, there will be much stuff on the bar exam that wouldn't even be covered at a California law school; you're at an even much greater disadvantage. Pony up, get the tapes/dvds, and good luck!
posted by ParisParamus at 11:48 PM on April 8, 2006

The class is good for structured studying, but most of the lectures just consist of filling in the blanks on worksheets from the books. You can find old Bar/Bri and PMBR books on Ebay. They will give you all the law you need to know (oddly enough, very little of it, even on the CA-specific sections, is actual CA law).
posted by amber_dale at 1:16 AM on April 9, 2006

I used to teach LSAT prep.

I only heard good things from my former students about BAR.BRI.
posted by k8t at 1:43 AM on April 9, 2006

I took the California Bar Exam several years ago, and passed on the first try. I think you'd be crazy not to use some bar review course---I think all of them are pretty good. I used the Micromash course because I was living in Austin and there was no Barbri course for the California test being offered in Austin at the time. I strongly recommend Micromash.

Micromash is a self-study course with two main components. There's the Multistate component, which requires that you study the printed Micromash law summaries (very similar to Barbri's books) and then take hours and hours of practice tests on your computer. At least when I used Micromash, the computer program (which was on three-inch floppies) kept track of your progress. You had to repeat the sections on certain areas of law over and over again until you achieved what Micromash deemed to be a "pass-level" mastery of that subject. You had to do that for all the subjects on the Multistate. The great selling point for Micromash was the "pay only if you pass" program, which I think they still offer. But to qualify for the "pay only if you pass" program, you had to successfully complete each computerized section of the program, which was a real challenge. (I finished the last one at 3 a.m. the night before my plane left for California, two days before the exam.)

The other component was geared to the Essay and Law Practice components of the California bar. You were paired up with a professor at a California law school, who would grade the written exam essays you would submit every week. (Barbri didn't have any similar personal interaction component, when I took Barbri for another state.) You had to submit your essays every week in order to remain eligible for the "pay only if you pass" component. The essays would then be returned, with written critiques and a grade. The professor I was paired with was a law professor at Loyola Marymount School of Law.

I was a little skeptical of Micromash when I first signed up for it, but having passed the exam on the first try, I strongly recommend it. Having also taken Barbri, I also recommend it (I love their Conviser Mini Review outline book, which I still use in law practice), but it lacks the features of Micromash that force you to do well---the personal interaction and the stringent requirements of the pay only if you pass program. Barbri, at least in my experience, basically involved going to a classroom every morning, sitting there listening to lectures, then going home to memorize more law.
posted by jayder at 8:36 AM on April 9, 2006

I needed the discipline and structure of a bar review course. I took Bar/Bri and passed the first time. I balanced the price vs. how much it would cost to 1) take it again and 2) potentially lose the job I already had lined up. While it was about 12 years ago, I remember they provided a schedule of exactly what to study for each day for about 10 weeks before the bar exam. If I didn't have something like that I would have burned out studying.

And, they have some amazing guest lecturers, like Erwin Chemerinsky on Constitutional Law.
posted by Miastar at 10:27 AM on April 9, 2006

Thanks to all for the comments; I think I will sign up for the course, then - I know I will get too nervous without a good structure, and it sounds like they'll show me what I need to know. I do really, really, really want to pass the first time, so the money will be worth it in the end. Thanks for the advice!
posted by livii at 2:06 PM on April 9, 2006

posted by Ironmouth at 6:57 PM on April 9, 2006

I think it would be a little bit insane not to take a Bar prep course even if you had just graduated from a law school in the same state where you were about to sit for the exam. For example, I didn't take any family law courses in law school but it was covered on the exam and I had forgotten some of the finer points of Contracts I from the first semester of law school and that was also covered. I would also expect there will be testing on the California Constitution. No way they covered that at your Canadian school.
posted by Carbolic at 10:45 PM on April 9, 2006

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